How competitive have the top European leagues been?
From one-horse races to see-saws
It seems that the usual clubs are always claiming top spots in elite European leagues. How typical is this? Has it always been like this? Or is this a recent phenomenon? A quick look at the history of the Top 5 European leagues can provide some context.
What is competitiveness?
Before we look into the data, it’s important to understand competitiveness. The definition is quite simple. It’s about having many, or at least more than one, genuine challengers for the league title over a period of time. The keyword here is genuine. We can talk about Top 3 or Top 6 but usually even from them, only 2–3 challengers can (and do) win, over a period of time.
With this in mind, we have two metrics of competitiveness, in ascending order of stringency:
- How many different teams have won the title?
- How many consecutive wins have happened?
This is measured over a period of time.
Generally, a decade is a natural and popular measurement. It’s often the maximum a team dominates before its ‘cycle’ ends. A league that remains ‘uncompetitive’ over a decade is indeed headed for long term staleness. While I’m measuring competitiveness over the last decade, the stats of the last two decades (i.e. since the start of the century) are also included for context.
I look at the Top 5 leagues from UEFA to gauge how competitive each league has been and currently is. [Data based on 2018/19 season end].
Since it’s inception in 1929, Spanish football has had 10 unique champions. As expected, the competition has been dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona whose 33 (38%) and 26 (30%) titles account for 2/3rds of the total. Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid are in joint 3rd place with 8 titles apiece. It’s almost been what I call a 2.5 horse race — an El Clasico duopoly interrupted infrequently by other clubs.
Real Madrid and Barcelona have featured in 30 Top 2 finishes, with both teams claiming the title 15 times at the expense of their direct rivals. Real Madrid holds the record for 5 consecutive titles, a feat they’ve managed twice.
Since the turn of the century, 5 clubs have won the Liga. Barcelona has been the most dominant club side, claiming 10 titles (50%). Seven of these 10 titles for Barcelona have come in the last decade. Arch-rivals Real Madrid managed 2, while Atleti chipped in with one.
Barcelona’s titles this decade is the second most dominant run in Liga since Real Madrid won it 8 times in the sixties.
The Football League is the oldest competition of its kind in the world. Since its inception in 1888, Manchester United have been the most successful team. The bulk of its 20 titles though have come in the Premier League era, in contrast to closest challenger Liverpool, whose 18 titles so far (until 2018/19 season) have come before the start of the Premier League. Together, these clubs account for 30% of the titles to date. Arsenal is in third place with 13 titles. Everton and Aston Villa, with 7 titles apiece, round off the top five, accounting for 54% of the titles.
Manchester United and Arsenal have featured in six Top 2 finishes, with the Red Devils pipping the Gunners to the title 4 times and losing twice. United have also been involved in five Top 2 finishes (apiece) with Liverpool and Chelsea. In terms of consecutive titles, 5 teams have achieved three-peats, though Manchester United are the only team to achieve this twice.
Since the turn of the century, 5 teams have won the Premier League, with Manchester United accounting for 8 titles (40%).
It has however been a tale of two decades.
From 2000–2009, Manchester United won 6 titles. In the last decade, neighbours City emerged as the most powerful team, winning 4 titles and setting a 100 point record. Then there is the Leicester City miracle. For the first time since the 70s, a title defence was possible only once in the decade.
Due to the World War, German football has seen many changes. When looking at recorded history from 1903, there have been 29 unique winners. Overall, Bayern is the most successful club with 29 (27%) titles followed by FC Nuremberg’s 9 titles (8%). The Bundesliga competition (from 1962/63) though is a different story. Bayern Munich’s 28 titles account for a staggering 50% of the total! Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach take a (distant) second place with 5 titles apiece.
Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen have featured in 7 Top 2 finishes with Bayern pipping Bremen to the title 4 times. Bayern-Dortmund is the second most frequent Top 2 finish — six times. Five of them, with a 4–1 split to Bayern, have come in the last decade.
Since the turn of the century, 5 clubs have won the Bundesliga. Bayern has been the most dominant club side, claiming 14 titles (70%), with eight in the last decade. Dortmund has been their most formidable opponent, winning (the other) 2 titles in the last decade and finishing as runner-up 4 times.
Bayern’s 8 titles this decade, seven of them consecutive, is the most dominant run in German football.
Since the start of football in Italy (1898), 16 clubs have won the league title. Juventus have 35 titles (30%) with the Milan sides accounting for 18 apiece. The Serie A era (from 1929/30) has seen 13 unique winners. Juventus’ 33 Serie A titles comprise the lion’s share (38%) of the total. AC Milan and Inter are the next most successful sides with 15 and 13 titles respectively. These three clubs account for 70% of all titles won.
Juventus and Roma have featured in ten Top 2 finishes, with Juventus pipping Roma to the crown on 8 of these occasions. Juventus and AC Milan have nine Top 2 finishes (on a 6/3 split in favour of Juventus). Juventus have the record for 8 consecutive titles — which they are currently on.
Since the turn of the century, 5 clubs have won the Serie A. Juventus has been the most dominant club side, claiming 10 titles (52%). Eight of these have come in the last decade. With the Milanese challenges fading, Roma and Napoli have emerged as closest challengers to Juventus in recent years.
Before interruption to the 2019/20 season, Juventus were top of the table meaning that a 9th consecutive title could be within reach, potentially matching the records of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland. The European record for consecutive titles is 14, jointly held by Lincoln (Gibraltar) and Skonto (Latvia). In the Top 9 European leagues today, the only Bayern’s 7 consecutive titles come close.
Since the start of football in France (1893/94), 28 clubs have won the title. Marseille and St Etienne have 10 titles apiece with Paris St Germain on 9. The count changes little if we look only at the Professional Era (1932/33 onwards). St Etienne have 10 titles (12%) with Marseille and PSG on 9 apiece. Monaco and Nantes have 8 apiece. These 5 clubs account for 50% of all titles won — across both eras. Of these, PSG is remarkable in that 7 of its 9 titles have come in the last decade, influenced no doubt by the Qatari takeover.
PSG and Marseille have featured in four Top 2 finishes, in a 3–1 split to PSG. While French football is typified by periods of dominance by clubs, the challengers have varied, leading to a low count of frequent Top 2 finishes. Lyon has the record for the most consecutive titles (7).
Since the turn of the century, 8 clubs have won the Ligue 1 with Lyon and PSG accounting for around two-thirds of this count.
It has however been a tale of two decades.
Lyon’s titles have come in the 2000s while PSG’s six titles have come in the last decade.
Ligue 1 has the best record compared to other Top 5 leagues when it comes to different winners in the last decade (5) and since the turn of the century (8).
It is nice to have valid competition; it pushes you to do better — Gianni Versace
Since the turn of the century, France has the most clubs (9) challenging for the top two positions (this is measured as unique clubs in 1st or 2nd position). In comparison, Germany has had 8 clubs, England and Spain, 7 each; while Italy has had 6 clubs.
When we narrow down to the last decade, we’re starting to see some “one-horse races” emerge in Germany, France and Italy.
- Bayern dominating the Bundesliga is nothing new. Their unprecedented dominance in the last decade has been an outlier — even by its own standards.
- In France, there has been a history of St Etienne and Lyon dominating for periods. However, PSG, with their squad worth 2–4 times their most formidable rivals, seems set for long dominance.
- In Italy, Juventus’ eight consecutive titles have made the last decade into the most one-sided in Serie A history. Compare this to the golden era of the Serie A — from the 80s to the mid-00s. In the 80s, just one title defence was possible, while the 90s and 00s saw at least four teams trade titles.
La Liga started this century with its most competitive period since the 1950s (based on different teams winning titles). The competition has since reverted into a near-duopoly which has largely existed since the mid-80s.
The Premier League enjoyed its most competitive decade since the 1970s, and the second most competitive of all time since the 1960s — which saw 10 different winners! From the ‘Agueroo’ moment to kick-start City’s challenges to the high-stakes cat and mouse chase between City and Liverpool to Leicester’s fairytale triumph, the Premier League has had arguably its best-ever phase in recent times.
The UEFA Cup/Europa League can provide an interesting, if not an entirely empirical, proxy for the competitiveness of top leagues.
- In the 80s, one of the most competitive decades for Bundesliga, Germany had 6 finalists — it’s best ever performance to date.
- During its golden age in the 90s, Serie A provided a staggering 13/20 finalists for UEFA Cup.
- This decade, it’s most competitive ever, the English Premier League had the best ‘returns’ in the Europa League — since the (wait for it) 1970s.
- This is not surprising because strong internal competition lifts the level of other clubs, who can then compete better in their respective competitions. Even if the title is fought between traditional heavyweights, competitions like UEFA Cup or UEL can be contested vigorously to ensure a trophy is won each season.
Competitiveness makes a league attractive.
What fun is it to watch a league with just one usual winner?
A competitive league attracts viewers. An attractive league attracts investors (and funds). This allows better players (and coaches) to be hired which in turn leads to better competition. Rigorous competition makes clubs stronger which improves their ability to compete, making the entire league stronger. This continued fresh inflow of finances and talent is the fuel that propels clubs, and therefore a league, to greater heights.
Competitiveness is the catalyst for a grand and potentially unending virtuous cycle for a league. It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats.